Introduction to Yamanba 山姥

by Monica Bethe and Karen Brazell1

The play Yamanba2 has been performed regularly since the 15th century and is often attributed to Zeami (1363-1443), primarily because it is mentioned several times in Sarugaku dangi (猿楽談義 Zeami’s Talks on Sarugaku). The play is in the repertoires of all the contemporary schools of noh actors, and its popularity guarantees that it will be presented several times each year in Japan. It is not related to any particular season, and, although it is usually performed as a fifth-category play, it may also be included in the first or fourth categories.3

Yamanba, literally "mountain old woman," is the name of both the play and its central character. The noh draws on legends of an old woman living in the mountains that have inspired Japanese artists for centuries. She is an enigma: a god, a demon, an entertainer, a mother; she is enlightened, tormented, helpful, and harmful. Capitalizing on this ambivalence, the noh adds new dimensions to the character of Yamanba. It highlights questions of appearance, reality, and art by introducing an entertainer who impersonates Yamanba to the real Yamanba, who in turn entertains her impersonator.

Yamanba is depicted wandering through the hills, communing with nature, and savoring the beauty of the changing seasons; indeed, she might be seen as Nature itself.4 She is also identified with Buddhist concepts of enlightenment and illusion. The kuse scene (see Yamanba Kuse Dance Text with Video) associates her with the moon, a symbol of enlightenment, but it also depicts her as doomed to suffering as she makes her mountain rounds. Her attachment to things in this life — to her reputation, for example — is one cause of her suffering. Another problem is that although she realizes that the true nature of things can only be perceived when one recognizes that "good and evil are one, right and wrong the same," she is still burdened by the distinction between good and evil. The two paths of true perception are illustrated by the scenery in which she lives and which is so much a part of her. The soaring mountains suggest enlightenment attained through personal effort and aspiration, and the sloping valleys represent grace bestowed by the descent of a merciful deity. Yamanba participates in both of these paths, for even as she aspires to eliminate distinction and free herself from attachments, she continues to descend the mountains, like a Buddha-figure shouldering the burdens of mankind.

The ambiguities presented in the text are also expressed in non-verbal ways through other aspects of the performance. The remarkable variety of masks made especially for this play indicate the wide spectrum of interpretations (see Noh as Performance: Masks)(photo or link to mask site or both). Yet all are a combination of the human and demonic. Yamanba's costume suggests ambiguity: its general outline falls between that of a demon and that of the spirit of a dead woman (see Costumes for Yamanba)(photo or link). The style of singing also reflects her dual nature, for although she is clearly identified as female, the entire play is sung in the forceful, dynamic mode (tsuyogin), usually used by non-human beings or by men describing their exploits in battle. The style of the dance movements alternates between the martial and the feminine: some movements are fierce and demonic, others pained and human.


The tsure of Yamanba (GloPAD Image 1001758)

The play opens with Hyakuma Yamanba (百万山姥, played by the tsure or companion), an entertainer who has made her reputation performing a song and dance about Yamanba, as she sets out on a pilgrimage to Zenkō Temple with three attendants (played by the waki and wakizure). Hyakuma chooses the most difficult path because it is said to be the path Amida Buddha descends when he comes to welcome believers to paradise. Barely have they set out along this road when night falls with preternatural swiftness, and an old woman (the shite) appears and offers them lodging. In the ensuing conversation, the old woman admits that she has caused dusk to fall early in order to detain the travelers and hear Hyakuma's song. Her reason is quite simple: she is herself Yamanba, the subject of Hyakuma Yamanba's art. Promising to return in her true form once the moon has risen, the old woman disappears.


Video of Yamanba (GloPAD Image 1004586)

During the shite's entrance scene in the second act the figure of Yamanba proclaims: "good and evil are not two." After the shite, the tsure, and the chorus describe Yamanba's appearance, the tsure moves to stage left and sits with her attendants lined up beside her (photo 25). Yamanba, with the help of the chorus, performs the kuse scene, which is translated and included in this module as an interactive text (see Yamanba Kuse Dance Interactive Text).5

The kuse scene is a derivative of a medieval song-dance adapted into the noh by Kannami called the kusemai. Yamanba is one of a few plays whose kuse scene preserves a form close to that of the original kusemai. This is the sequence of segments within the scene:

  1. shidai: theme song
  2. kuri: ornate passage
  3. sashi: recitative main segment, divided into five stanzas: A, B, C, A', C'6

The kuse scene begins and ends with the same poetic refrain.

The end of the kuse scene moves without break into a brief dance with instrumental accompaniment that depicts Yamanba's wanderings. When the time comes to take her leave, Yamanba expresses the hope that Hyakuma's performance of her story will become a vehicle in praise of Buddha. In the exit scene both song and dance describe Yamanba's return to her wandering through the mountains. Yamanba, the "accumulated dust of delusion," is last seen scaling the peaks, her voice echoing through the valleys. She then vanishes, her destination unknown.

Performance time for a full performance of Yamanba is about an hour and three-quarters, of which the kuse scene takes about 20 minutes. Its 78 short lines of poetry could be recited in far less time, but in performance, the melodic, rhythmic and kinetic elements elaborate the text.

  1. 1. This essay includes slightly revised versions of matter included in Noh as Performance: An Analysis of the Kuse Scene of Yamanba, published by the China-Japan Program (now the East Asia Program), Cornell University, 1978. Here we have rearranged the text, revised it slightly, included more images and added links to Internet sources. For an archival copy of the original book, click here.
  2. 2. "Yamamba" is the way this word is pronounced and was, in the 1970s and 80s, how it was often romanized. However, romanization standards now recommend writing it as "Yamanba." The Japanese characters 山姥 may also be pronounced "yama-uba."
  3. 3. For an easy Japanese reference to the categories and seasonal associations of noh plays see Play Database (曲目データベース).
  4. 4. This and other statements about Yamanba’s nature are made in the introduction to the Kanze school chant book (utaibon) Yamanba (Kinoki shoten, 1972), 1-2.
  5. 5. A DVD version of most of act two with bilingual subtitles is available here from the Cornell East Asia Series. A list of translations of the entire play can be found here.
  6. 6. In noh this is called a "double kuse" (nidan kuse). The full form would be A B C A’ B’ C’, but B’ is often omitted.
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